Tag Archives: F

CECIL B. DEMENTED

F

“Welcome to film hell,” a character intones near the beginning
of John Water’s would-be satire of the movie business. The
line’s addressed to an audience at a Hollywood premiere that’s
about to be invaded by self-styled cinema terrorists, but it
might as well be directed to those unfortunate enough to be
watching “Cecil B. DeMented” itself. This is one lousy picture.

Waters was once embraced by a small group of fans as a master
of gleefully overwrought bad taste, but in the age of “Me,
Myself and Irene” and “Scary Movie” his taste seems to have
mellowed and only the badness remains. His new effort
apparently still wants to shock while simultaneously making
some sort of statement in favor of independent filmmaking as
against the studio system, but it’s so terribly written,
clumsily directed, dreadfully acted and shabbily edited that
it makes one long for a slick Hollywood flick, however
brainless and prefabricated it might be.

Water’s debacle has to do with an arrogant, aging star named
Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) who’s kidnapped by a gang
of film geeks led by the eponymous crackpot (Stephen Dorff);
his intention is to force her to star in his guerrilla picture,
in which she will actually lead armed attacks against the
forces of conventional filmmaking (represented by the Maryland
Film Commission, Teamster workers and a troupe shooting a
“Forrest Gump” sequel in Baltimore). A plot constructed
around the notion of hit-and-run moviemaking can work, of
course–“Ed Wood” used the idea brilliantly, and even Steve
Martin’s disappointing “Bowfinger” had its moments (as did
Vittorio De Sica’s much-underrated “After the Fox” back
in 1966). But Waters has nothing coherent to say on the
subject. He apparently thinks it’s amusing just to take a
flock of obnoxious, irritating characters and have them
parade across the screen for ninety minutes, mouthing inane
dialogue and rushing about chaotically. There’s no structure
to “Cecil D. DeMented”–it’s just a succession of lumbering
episodes, each drearier than the last. Even one with a
potentially funny premise–like that built on the notion that
a “Forrest Gump” sequel might star Kevin Nealon, who makes a
brief cameo appearance–is destroyed by poor writing and
incredibly shoddy helming. Nor does the picture manage the
bad-boy shock moments the director was once known for. Having
Patty Hearst do a cameo in a script about a hostage won over
by her captors is hardly a clever ploy, and basing another
scene on the image of a crowded, all-male audience reacting
in unison, in Pee-Wee Herman fashion, to a porno flick falls,
if you’ll pardon the expression, desperately flat.

Under the circumstances it’s understandable that the actors
flail about miserably. Griffith may get points for being
willing to lampoon her own image, but she’s still embarrassing.
Dorff proves remarkably uncharismatic as he broods, shouts and
struts about to no comedic purpose. Lesser lights like Alicia
Witt, Adrian Genier, Larry Gilliard, Jr. and Jack Noseworthy
put in considerable effort, but to no positive effect; when
Noseworthy, for example, has to launch into an excruciating
diatribe as a straight makeup man who longs to be gay, it’s
positively painful to watch.

There are, to be sure, a few in-jokes about the business that
score in “Cecil B. DeMented.” The opening credit sequence,
showcasing humorous film titles on marquees and going sonically
awry with the listings for music and sound, generates some
chuckles; and the notion of a director’s cut of “Patch Adams”
is inherently funny (though nothing is made of it). But
overall the picture is almost entirely mirthless. At one point
another character reads a second pertinent line: “Somebody’s
got to pay for this insult.” By the time “Cecil B. DeMented”
careens to a close, the viewer can only wish this were so; the
movie is rancid Waters indeed.

BLESS THE CHILD

Grade: F

And damn the audience. Chuck Russell’s would-be supernatural thriller, a kind of gender-altered reversal of “The Omen,” proves an unholy brew of generic gothic gloom, outmoded religious iconography, sadistic violence, bad theology, pseudo-mystical twaddle, “Star Wars” themes, New Agey angel-myth and urban angst. The resultant, thoroughly unpalatable mishmash is ludicrous from the standpoint of both fundamental Christian belief and the most elementary narrative logic; the movie’s so bad that if you’re a practicing Catholic, you’ll probably feel the need for absolution immediately after seeing it.

Coming distinctly late in the slew of apocalyptic flicks that attended the supposed turn of the millennium, “Bless the Child” easily lives down to such benighted predecessors as “Fallen,” “Stigmata” and “End of Days.” The idiotic story centers on a miracle child, young Cody (Holliston Coleman), who’s left with her childless aunt Maggie (Kim Basinger) only days after birth by her druggie mom Jenna (Angela Bettis). Six years later, Cody’s been diagnosed as mildly autistic, but her real problem is that she was born under the second appearance of the Star of Bethlehem (!) and is endowed with special powers for good. These include the ability to spin plates around telekinetically and even to revivify dead pigeons (a power which, in New York, seems of quite dubious value).

Of course, Cody is not to be left alone. She’s stalked by a Satanic cult, led by smooth but nasty Eric Stark (Rufus Sewell), who runs a self-help movement as a blind while systematically tracking down kids born the same day as she and, when they turn out not to be “the chosen one” of God, simply eliminating them. When Cody is finally kidnapped by Stark, whose intention is apparently to turn her to “The Dark Side” of the Force or something, the attempt to retrieve her brings Maggie, a singularly stupid though well-intentioned woman, into cahoots with John Travis (Jimmy Smits), a remarkably inept FBI agent who’s investigating the series of child abductions, certain that they involve the occult (he’s an ex-seminarian, you see, and knows about such things).

We won’t go into the further ramifications of the plot, save to note that they introduce a variety of cliched characters, including a punky ex-cult member (Christina Ricci), a bevy of nuns dressed as though they were caught in a 1950s time warp (doesn’t anybody in Hollywood realize that Catholic sisters abandoned such garb after Vatican II?), a nanny (played by Dimitra Arlys) who would put Mrs. Danvers to shame, a (presumed) guardian angel who appears in various guises to assist our heroes, and a defrocked Jesuit named Grissom who pontificates blearily about how the Roma church, in its frenzy for modernization (what world is he living in?), will no longer recognize the existence of True Evil. (It’s a role which would once have been played with lip-smacking relish by Donald Pleasence.) There are also periodic spasms of cheesy F/X, including poorly-executed flocks of computer-generated rodents, demonic gargoyles and shining heavenly apparitions who intrude upon the action, without point or explanation, from time to time.

This hodgepodge couldn’t have been salvaged by the most expert handling, but the execution here is pallid at best. Russell tries hard to generate some “Se7en”-style atmosphere, emulating the burnished, seedy appearance of David Fincher’s picture almost slavishly, but the result just looks murky and washed-out. There’s a throbbing score by Christopher Young which goes so far as to employ vocal chants reminiscent of those intoned in Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-winner music for “The Omen,” but it has little impact. As for the acting, it’s pretty much embarrassing across the board. Basinger’s stilted, mannequin-like performance isn’t out of place in a potboiler like this, but along with her similarly wooden turn in “I Dreamed of Africa” earlier this year, it reinforces the notion that her work in “L.A. Confidential” was a fluke, the result of being led by a director (Curtis Hanson) who shaped every nuace with much the same sort of care that Hitchcock lavished upon Kim Novak’s efforts in “Vertigo.” Smits is strangely subdued here, but Sewell glowers and snarls histrionically as Stark; he overdoes things particularly in a semi-blasphemous rooftop scene with young Coleman which might be titled “The Last Temptation of Cody.” Still, this kind of Darth Vader-like villainy works much better with a black facemask and heavy breathing apparatus than with a trenhcoat and perfectly-shaved visage. Holm looks deeply pained during his brief appearance as the pompous Grissom, and his discomfiture isn’t entirely explicable by reason of the fact that the character is wheelchair-bound and obviously unwell.

There’s a line of dialogue near the beginning of “Bless The Child” which pretty much sums the movie up. Cody is frightened by a rat in a mound of trash in the gutter while she and her aunt are walking home one night (an unlikely sight in the post-Giuliani metropolis), and Maggie tries to comfort her. “What’s the matter?” she asks. “It’s only garbage, honey.” How very true.